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THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS IN FILMS AND IN THE GOSPELS

In Teaching the Bible: An e-newsletter for public school teachers

Society of Biblical Literature, September 2010

Jeffrey L. Staley

Seattle University, Seattle Washington.

If you were to ask Americans today to visualize Jesus crucifixion, no doubt most would

describe something similar to Jim Caviezels bloody body in Mel Gibsons 2004 film, The

Passion of the Christ. Large-screen images with sound effects have a powerful impact on

peoples memory, and when watched in the darkness of a theater where audiences are literally

held captive to the screen, the effect is much more powerful than watching on a home computer

or television. But Gibsons film is now six years old, and unless teenagers today are enrolled in

Christian schools or are members of Catholic parishes or evangelical churches, it is unlikely they

have seen Gibsons film. And if students have seen the film, they probably did not watch it in a

theater. Nevertheless, it is highly likely that when a teacher announces to a class, Tomorrow

were going to talk about the death of Jesus, many students and their parents will have questions

regarding the accuracy of Gibsons crucifixion scene.

Technically, only the last forty minutes of Gibsons two-hour film deal with Jesus

crucifixion. And by crucifixion I mean the sections of the gospels that deal with the following

three scenes: 1) Jesus walk to Golgotha (traditionally this walk is called the Via Dolorosa [the

road of sorrows]); 2) his crucifixion and final words; 3) his death and deposition (the body

taken down from the cross). In contrast to Gibsons forty minute sequence, the crucifixion scenes

in the gospels average about twenty-five verses each, which can be read slowly in less than ten

minutes (Matthew 27:27-60; Mark 15:20b-46; Luke 23:26-53; John 19:16b-40).

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Why do films treat Jesus journey to Golgotha in such different ways?

Matthew, Mark, and John describe Jesus journey to Golgotha in just one or two

sentences. However, Lukes gospel states that a great crowd followed Jesus, and adds Jesus

conversation to the crying women who are following him (Luke 23:27-31). The main issue in

Jesus walk to Golgotha, is whether Jesus carries his own cross (John 19:17; victims carried

just the cross-beam), or whether Simon of Cyrene carries it (Synoptics). No gospel tells the story

of Veronica, who wipes the face of Jesus with a cloth which leaves an imprint of his face (the

spelling of her name is attributed to the Latin word vera [true] and the Greek word ikon

[image]). And there are no gospel accounts of Jesus stumbling and falling (Catholic Stations of

the Cross #3, #7, #9).

Scholars carefully watch Jesus films to see what happens as Jesus walks the Via

Dolorosa. Since the gospels themselves say nothing about what the soldiers or crowds do, this is

a natural place for film directors to invent action and dialogue. As a result, the words and actions

of the Roman soldiers and the Jewish crowds often reveal a directors anti-Jewish bias. For

example, in the earliest Jesus film (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ [Zecca, 1905]), the

Roman soldiers protect Jesus from Jewish crowds that are trying to attack him (cf., Mark 15:15;

Luke 23:16, 22; John 19:1, 16-17). Later on, in the sound era, the question will be: Do the

crowds shout anything at Jesus as he walks by? If so, what do they say? Finally, do the chief

priests follow Jesus to Golgotha and ridicule him (Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-37), or are they

off somewhere else, talking to Pilate (John 19:18-22)?

Why do some films focus so much on Jesus bloody body?

When Jesus reaches Golgotha, the gospels focus of attention is on the words spoken at

the cross, rather than on Jesus pain and suffering. Likewise, the death and deposition focuses on

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Joseph of Arimathea who asks Pilate for Jesus body, not on what Jesus body looks like as it is

taken down and wrapped in linen cloths. The closest the gospels come to mentioning Jesus pain

and suffering as he dies is when Jesus says I thirst (John 19:28) and when he cries out My

God, why have you abandoned me (Mark 15:34). Significantly, the gospels describe these

statements as quotes from Scripture (Christian Old Testament). Furthermore, only the Gospel of

John mentions nail prints (John 20:24-25) or blood (John 19:34from the spear thrust in his

side).

It is clear that the ancient Hebrew people believed a creatures life-spirit was in its blood

(Leviticus 17:10-14; cf., Mark 14:24 and parallels; 1 John 5:6; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:12, 22).

However, films like Gibsons that focus on Jesus bloody body do so in order to emphasize Jesus

deatheither as a sacrifice to God, or as fulfilled prophecy, or as his fateor all of these things

(see Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar [1973]; Zeffirelli, Jesus of Nazareth [1977]; Scorsese, Last

Temptation of Christ [1988]; and Young, Jesus [1999]). In these films, Jesus bloody, battered

body is something God needs in order to bring salvation to humans. God demands blood from a

sacrificial victim, and the Jesuses of these films is willing to bleed and be that victim.

However, in Arcands Jesus of Montreal (1989), Daniel/Jesus blood-spattered body is not

sacrificial. His death does not fulfill prophecy. His death is not something God demands. In that

film, Daniel/Jesus manner of life, his behavior (represented by Jesus bleeding body, and later,

by Daniels Type-O blood) is what has the power to transform lives.

Of the twenty or so Jesus movies presently available on DVD, only two go to the

opposite extreme of Gibsons film and show bloodless crucifixions. The first to do so was

Godspell (1973), where Judas uses red ribbons to tie Jesus to a chain-link fence. The other was

Monty Pythons comedy of the life of Jesus, Life of Brian (1979), where Brian (the Jesus-like

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character) is crucified (tied to his cross), and with 139 others, ends up singing Always Look on

the Bright Side of Lifecomplete with pairs of tapping feet. The way these two Jesus

characters live their lives is unrelated to their manner of death. Godspells Jesus is a happy clown

who seems to have no enemies, yet somehow finds himself tied to a fence. And Brian has no

interest in being a hero or having followers. Both of these Jesuses have lived lives free of any

serious commitments, and consequently their deaths are bloodless. They do not die as sacrifices

to anything. Their deaths are not part of prophecy or some divine plan.

Why do films portray Jesus crucifixion in such different ways?

Beginning with the rarely seen American film The Great Commandment (Pichel, 1939

[A2ZCDS.com, Inc., 2005]), American directors began placing Jesus crucifixion within the

broader history and politics of the Roman empire. They did this by including scenes early in their

films where many crucified victims are shown near Jerusalem (King of Kings [Ray, 1961]; The

Greatest Story Ever Told [Stevens, 1965]; Young, Jesus).

In 1968, archaeologists working just outside Jerusalem discovered the bones of a Jewish

man named Jehohanan, who was crucified at about twenty-five years of age, possibly in the first

century CE. Reconstructions of the mans body gave directors Martin Scorsese (The Last

Temptation of Christ) and Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal) a new way to portray Jesus

crucifixionone that was quite different from traditional portrayals in Christian art. Following J.

H. Charlesworths reconstruction

(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/crucifixion.html), Scorsese and

Arcand show their Jesus characters seated nearly sideways on their crosses, with their legs

twisted and pulled up beneath them, nearly to their buttocks.

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Artists did not invent crucifixion. Torturers did. And so people were tiedsometimes

also nailed (like Jehohanan and Jesus)to poles stuck in the ground, and in ways that would

make for long, painful deaths (cf., John 19:31-33). People were crucified naked (cf., Mark 15:24;

John 19:23-25), and their pain and nudity were supposed to act as a deterrent to crime (cf., Mark

15:26; John 19:19). For centuries, artists have been putting the body of Jesus on crosses in ways

that are anatomically and aesthetically pleasing. But Scorsese and Arcand follow the

archaeological reconstructions of Jehohanans crucifixion, rather than Christian artists.

According to the gospels, the legal reason for Jesus crucifixionsedition (a king of the

Jews was a threat to Roman power)was written and placed on the cross (Matthew alone says

above his head, 27:37). Only the gospel of John adds Jesus of Nazareth (19:19). INRI is

thus not Jesus middle name. Rather, it represents the first letters of the Latin words Jesus of

Nazareth, king of the Jewsa lengthy phrase that is not artistically pleasing when spelled out

and placed above Jesus head.

Arcands cross is in the shape of a capital letter T rather than the traditional t, which

does not allow for INRI to be placed above Jesus head. Instead, Arcands Jesus wears it

draped around his neck. Following Christian art, most Jesus movies will also have Jesus die with

a crown of thorns on his head, although there is no evidence that the crown of thorns was still on

his head at this time. Only Arcands Jesus of Montreal also rejects this familiar crucifix image.

A subtle, but perhaps more radical view of Jesus crucifixion can be seen in Pasolinis

1964 Italian film The Gospel of Matthew. When Jesus gets to Golgotha, Pasolini focuses the

cameras attention not on Jesus suffering on the cross, but rather on the suffering of one of the

nameless robbers crucified with Jesus. This challenge to the uniqueness of Jesus death is

hinted at earlier in the film when Pasolini shows Jesus, with his wrists bound, being led with two

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other wrist-bound men from the high priest Caiaphas, to Pilate (2.00:04). This implies that the

high priest and Pilate try the two robbers along with Jesus.

But once Jesus is hanging on the cross, Pasolini turns to a more traditional Catholic point

of view, and has the camera focus on the suffering of Jesus mother, Mary, kneeling with other

women and the beloved disciple John (John 19:23-37), a short distance from the cross. A few

years later, Jewison (Jesus Christ Superstar) picks up this suffering mother motif from Pasolinis

filmbut in a radical shift, makes Mary Magdalene the focus of suffering rather than Mary the

mother. Pasolinis final controversial effect is his portrayal of Jesus death. Pasolinis Jesus

simply dies with a loud cry (Matthew 27:50; cf., Mark 15:34). It is not the more theologically

meaningful Into your [Gods] hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46, and most Jesus films).

These unfamiliar images of crucifixion and of Jesus deathno crown of thorns,

completely naked, legs tucked up beneath him, coupled with either showing or talking about

other crucifixions, can have an unsettling effect on many first time Jesus-film viewers. If there is

anything people think they know about Jesus, they are sure they know how he looked as he hung

dying on the cross. And for many, how Jesus looks on the cross is closely tied up with what they

believe to be the meaning of Jesus death (i.e., he died this way for me). If there are no nails in

Jesus hands, no blood dripping from his thorn-crowned brow, no visible difference between

Jesus contorted body and those of other crucified victims, then in the words of Barnes Tatum,

these film-versions of Jesus are not their Jesus Christ (Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the

First Hundred Years. Revised and Expanded [Polebridge, 2004] p. 10). And by extension, these

non-traditional portrayals of Jesus death cannot be theologically accurate.

When read carefully against the gospel accounts, against the 125-year history of Jesus

films, and against Western Christian culture at large, Jesus films can function as a very useful

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tool for teachers to use in the classroom; a tool that can unravel some of the historical,

theological, and cultural issues related to Jesus death.

Conclusion

As one watches film versions of Jesus crucifixion, here are some important questions to

ask:

1. What is happening to Jesus as he walks to Calvary? Are there Roman soldiers

protecting Jesus? Can you hear what the crowds are shouting? If so, what are they

saying?

2. What does the camera look at as Jesus is crucified? What is the role of Jesus mother

as Jesus dies? What are Jesus last words?

3. Is there someone at the cross who interprets its meaning for the viewer?

4. Does Jesus bleed? If so, what is the meaning of Jesus blood?

5. What is the function of music during Jesus crucifixion?

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Golgotha: Aramaic for skull (John 19:17); in Latin, Calvary. The site just outside the walls

of Jerusalem where public executions took place.

Stations of the Cross: Refers to the fourteen traditional stopping places between (1) Pilate

condemning Jesus to death, and (14) Jesus being laid in the tomb. These date probably to the 14th

century.

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READERS GUIDE

Staley, Jeffrey L. and Richard Walsh, Jesus, the Gospels, and Cinematic Imagination: A

Handbook to Jesus on DVD. Westminster, 2007.

Tatum, W. Barnes. Jesus at the Movies: A Guide to the First Hundred Years. Revised and

Expanded. Polebridge, 2004.